I never thought I’d find myself as a regular visitor at a prison.
When I moved to Egypt a year ago, I was ready to spend the next few years immersing myself in my Master’s program and life in Cairo. I wanted to learn, meet people and maximise what I consider the privilege of being a student - a life which gets to mostly be about learning and growth.
When dad (Hazem Hamouda) said he was coming to visit, I was excited. Seeing dad in Egypt is always like seeing a different dad. In Arabic, dad is witty and a great storyteller. In English, he is more serious. He says English is how he expresses thought and logic, but his emotions and sense of humour will always be best expressed in Arabic. Dad’s attempts at translating Arabic jokes, since we were kids, always fell flat and he’d always look a bit disappointed at our confused faces. It used to make me sad, as I knew that even if I learnt the Arabic language, the layers of history, politics and pop-culture references embedded in language and humour would probably take even longer to understand than the complicated grammar.
Yet, I’ve learnt more Arabic visiting the prison each week, than I did in classes. At the prison, no-one speaks English so I’m forced to stumble through the language. On my first visit, I learnt the words for “sign up” and “political prisoner”. It took me a few weeks to realise kashfek kam meant “what page number are you?” in reference to the visitor’s sign-in list, and not “what time did you sign in” as I had assumed.
After all, half-past-nine isn’t a page number.
A lot of people have assumed that there must be a reason dad is behind bars. There is a tendency to assume that the law functions in a universal way; that imprisonment means there must be evidence, and probably guilt.
A lot of people have assumed that there must be a reason dad is behind bars.
Dad was arrested under laws that allow for the imprisonment of individuals on just an accusation, without substantial evidence. A person can be held behind bars for up to 150 days, without charge or evidence, while they are investigated.
In June, dad finished the first set of 150 days of what is known as the “pre-trial investigation” period. After ten hearings, no evidence to substantiate the accusation has been presented. He now enters a period where he can continue to remain behind bars, with no evidence or charge, where he is expected to face court every 45 days for review. This can continue for up to two years – if not longer.
In Egypt, it is common to bundle multiple defendants into one case. Dad’s case is part of a bigger case involving more than 60 other people. This makes things even more complicated. These big cases are quite common, with some cases containing hundreds of individuals. People included in with dad are journalists, bloggers, activists and former politicians; all are facing similar accusations of either associating, sympathising, or promoting a banned organisation.
The Muslim Brotherhood was banned four years ago, after the government of the Brotherhood came to an abrupt end after one year in power. In a proceeding climate of security concerns – some of which are justified - sweeping arrests have been periodically conducted.
Dad made the mistake of not double-checking the dates of his ticket. He flew into Cairo on 25 January, the anniversary of the 2011 revolution. This was flagged as suspicious, particularly given this year was an election year, and dad found himself swept up in a heightened securitised political climate that he hadn’t anticipated.
The Australian Embassy in Cairo have done a consistent job in visiting dad every month, monitoring his health and the general situation. Dad holds dual-citizenship; a proud Australian for the past 30 years, he is also a proud Egyptian and a proud Muslim. But he is, first and foremost, a family man – a loyal husband for 30 years, father to six kids, grandfather to two gorgeous girls, and a son who has been a primary carer for his mother since the passing of our grandfather.
Yet, the intersections of his identity complicate his case; on the one hand, he flew into Egypt on his Australian passport and is recognised as an Australian citizen. On the other hand, his arrest proceeded due to his Egyptian nationality. Furthermore, his identification as a Muslim rouses suspicion. Islam is so often associated with terrorism, despite all the best efforts of communities worldwide to undo this assumption. It’s a fierce effort to keep the label of “terrorist” off my father, but I refuse to let it be stapled to him.
In all these political games, what’s most tragic is that a man’s life is slowly lost behind bars. Dad stays strong, but after seven months – I can see that his imprisonment is taking a toll. He suffers from recurring scabies, a common ailment in prison. There are no facilities like a library, computer room or in-prison programs. He spends 22 hours a day in a 3x3 metre cell with two other men. Right now, it is the middle of summer. There is no relief from the heat, as like the other men he just has a small fan. He gets two hours of outdoor time a day, and a one hour visit each week from me. According to the lawyer, this is as ideal as it gets in an Egyptian prison so I cannot complain. It could be worse.
The rest of our family remains in Australia. While dad has been in prison, my sister gave birth to her second child, Amalia. In Arabic, the first part of her name – Amal - means hope. Her big sister Aveline is only two-years old, she has noticed the absence of her ‘papa’ and has taken to looking in the cupboards for him. And we’re not the only family, families across Egypt – and the world – suffer from the consequences of arbitrary arrests.
We want the Australian public to realise that my dad is innocent, and he deserves to come home and be with his family. No one should go on holiday and end up in prison.